Some people crank out books rapidly, one quickly after the last. Others take longer to accomplish the task. Based as it is on a dissertation defended at Columbia University back in 1999, Charles Steinwedel’s Threads of Empire has been a long time in coming. My guess is that this was a source of frustration for the author himself, but for our field there is real and tangible profit. This book clearly benefitted handsomely from the long time that it took to complete. The bibliography is extensive, and the author has taken careful stock of major developments in the historiography over the last two decades or so. A glance at the endnotes reveals that ideal balance of archival, published primary, and secondary sources, woven together seamlessly and all placed in intimate conversation with one another. That very configuration is evidence of a tremendous process of synthesis and integration—one that really could unfold only over the long haul. This depth—a function of the long time the author spent carefully contemplating the key issues at stake—is the first of four major attributes that I ascribe to this book.
A second—and related—attribute is the book’s chronological scope. While the authors of The History Manifesto (whether rightly or wrongly—probably the latter) fret about the narrowing chronological scope of much contemporary historical research, here we have a work that is bold in its willingness to take on the challenge of covering some 350 years of history. That my colleague and specialist on the early-modern era, Matthew Romaniello, finds the book compelling and indeed “excellent” on the more than two centuries before the 19th century says a great deal about the skill with which Steinwedel, whose work has focused mostly on late imperial Russia, successfully ventured into those earlier eras. This after all requires great sensitivity to the peculiarities of earlier ages, something that requires deep immersion. My colleague Ilya Gerasimov notes the “inner research logic” behind this broad chronological scope, and I agree. Indeed, though my mind is admittedly crippled by the intellectually stultifying task of chairing a modern academic department, I strain to identify more than a handful of books, aside from works of broad synthesis, that tackle such an extended period of time: Yuri Slezkine’s Arctic Mirrors (which nonetheless focuses principally on the Soviet era); John LeDonne’s works on Russia’s “grand strategy” over 2-3 centuries; and Michael Khodarkovsky’s Making of a Colonial Empire (which however does not extend into the modern period). The fact is that we simply do not have very many books that probe deeply into a particular problem while also tackling the long haul. This is obviously in part because those two tasks are so fundamentally at odds with one another. To reconcile them is no mean feat. Steinwedel has managed this, and indeed the twin problems of loyalty and authority (encompassed in the metaphor of “threads”) are sharply revealed in the process, as is their evolution over time.